Arsenal unlikely to find solace in Champions League draw

Posted by James McNicholas



What Arsenal need right now is a bit of good news. After their 6-3 hammering against Manchester City, the Gunners are reeling: They have seen their defensive record demolished and their lead in the table reduced to just two points. However, Arsene Wenger and his team are unlikely to find much solace in Monday's Champions League draw.

After being pipped to top spot in Group F by Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal know they will face a group winner in the first round of the knockout stages. Their list of possible opponents is daunting: Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain all await.

Each path looks potentially treacherous. It was Bayern who ended Arsenal's European hopes last season. A 3-1 victory for the German side at Emirates Stadium effectively killed the tie. Arsenal responded brilliantly, winning the second leg 2-0 in Munich, but by then it was too little, too late.

Bayern went on to win the competition, beating rivals Dortmund in the final. Ominously, under new boss Pep Guardiola, they seem to have improved since then. This season, Arsenal were beaten 2-1 at home by an effervescent Dortmund side, but this Bayern team currently sit 12 points above them in the Bundesliga table. Emerging victorious over two legs would require a monumental effort.

All three of the Spanish sides carry a considerable threat. In Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, Real Madrid have arguably the world's best player and definitively the most expensive. Ronaldo is in explosive form this season, and became the first player to score nine goals in the Champions League group stage. What's more, he also has a history against Arsenal in the competition, scoring twice during the Gunners' semifinal with Manchester United in 2009. Stopping him is not a task Arsenal's defenders would relish.

A draw with Barcelona feels almost inevitable for Arsenal, who also faced the Spanish champions in 2006, 2010 and 2011. Under Tata Martino, Barcelona have not looked quite the force they have been in recent years. However, Neymar's marvelous hat trick at the climax of the group stage indicates that the pieces are portentously beginning to fall into place. By the time the knockout stage actually rolls around, Barca will also be able to welcome back a certain Lionel Messi. The tie would have an emotional significance, too, as it would represent former Gunners skipper Cesc Fabregas' first return to the club since leaving in August 2011.

There have been suggestions that Arsenal would be pleased to draw Atletico Madrid. That assumption may be a little naive: Diego Simeone's side have won 13 of their 15 games in La Liga, and boast one of Europe's hottest properties in the form of burly striker Diego Costa. Atletico may not have the pedigree of the other teams in the draw, but they have certainly have the prowess.

A draw against Paris Saint-Germain might look most favourable. The French giants have not made it beyond the competition's quarterfinals in almost 20 years. But this is a different PSG -- one backed by big money and even bigger ambition. Wenger would also face a reunion with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the man who turned down a trial with Arsenal as a teenager before scoring a devastating brace at the Emirates in Barcelona colours in March 2010.

Simply put: There is no easy draw. The one comfort Arsenal fans should take is that none of these giants would want to be paired with the Gunners. The two English teams that tore into each other during Saturday's game at the Etihad, Arsenal and Manchester City, are by far the strongest in the runners-up pot. The likes of Bayern and Barca would much rather come up against Galatasaray, Olympiakos or Zenit St. Petersburg.

What's more, by the time the knockout fixtures actually take place, Arsenal could well be in a better frame of mind to face a fight with a European colossus. A win over Chelsea next week would alleviate much of the fretting, and show the Gunners they are capable of competing with the continent's best.

For now, however, Arsenal remain sore. The 6-3 drubbing has hurt their points tally, their pride and their belief. Monday's Champions League draw threatens to compound those concerns. Arsenal are unlikely to find much consolation in that foreboding winners' pot.

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